Nick Mango

eBay’s Incredible iPhone Gap

As incredible as it may seem, people actually use the eBay web interface. I know, I know, not possible right? But they do. They login, they use that mouse thingy, they wait for pages to “load” HA! Suckers. The eBay web interface is for dudes that still have an angel fire fan site about Pearl Jam. But if you live in the second decade of the 21st century, like me, you only use the eBay iPhone app. For those that have never heard of this incredible piece of software, I thought I’d show you exactly what you’re missing. Prepare to be amazed

To understand why the iPhone app is so perfect, you need to first understand what makes designing a mobile app, for a very large website, so great. The key is the removal of clutter because of real estate restrictions. With the web interface, eBay has tons of room that they feel they need to fill with noise. And by “noise”, I mean straight up garbage. When you go to eBay, what would you rather see….

I don’t think there’s any comparison. Give me the simple interface on the right. I don’t need eBay to recommend auctions they think I want to know about. This might be useful for someone who shops on eBay, but not for a collector. A collector knows what they want. They’re collecting for a reason. A reason that a computer couldn’t possibly understand.

For those that have never seen the iPhone app, you might be saying, “You’re not comparing the right screens.” Well I am actually. I’m comparing the first screens you see when you open up eBay. The app shows you an overview, which is helpful compared the web interface homepage. The web interface shows you clutter and noise. If you want to go to a more useful screen on the web interface, like for instance My eBay, you’ll need to sign in. Yes, even if it says your username at the top. Why? I have absolutely no idea. But never the less, you must sign in. On the app, no signing in is needed. Speed is a trend with the app. You’ll see that as we go further.

When we compare the My eBay screens, you can clearly see the ease of the app over the jumbled mess of the web interface. What’s interesting is, this is how the My eBay screen looked when they original released the app. But then they switched to a list view, which I personally didn’t think was that great. That screen looked like this.

I think it’s obvious why they switched back, this screen just delays you getting into Watching or Selling. No need to delay this with a list. So great job by them. I also think they could dump the Home screen. I don’t see much use for it. Especially if they used that real estate for a Messages icon. So I would move My eBay all the way to the left, make that the default home screen, then stick Messages down there.

Speaking of messages, how about communication between users. I’ve seen eBay morph their messaging system a million times over the years. For instance, it use to be that you couldn’t message a user unless you did it from one of their auctions. Meaning, if they didn’t have an auction up, you couldn’t get a hold of them. Which is a great spam blocker. But that changed. Now you can message users that don’t have auctions up. You need to fill out a captcha, but you can get there. Ebay is trying to make their site more social. Did you know you could have a blog on eBay? Yeah, a freaking blog! They’re trying to keep you there longer. I don’t blame them for that. But they have an issue. They’re trying to get users to be more social with each other, but at the same time, they have to make sure sales don’t spill over into emails. When a sale starts on eBay, and gets completed in emails, they lose a lot of money. It’s a very difficult, give and take process, they’re dealing with here. So where am I going with this. Well, with the iPhone app, they don’t have the depth in the app to make it more difficult to contact someone. If you want to contact someone, you just hit the button. There’s no captcha. Mainly because it’s very difficult to automate a spammer in a mobile device. Ebay is not worried about manual spam, they’re worried about automated spam. Which is a mistake in my opinion. Now I love how easy it is to message people on the app. I use it all the time. But it’s a mistake to think they’re not losing a lot of money because of people contacting sellers and dealing off the grid. And the app makes that even easier.

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Ebay has also changed how you contact a user through one of their listings. In the beginning it was just a Contact Seller button and you filled out what you wanted. Now they’ve added a few screens to cut down on the people that don’t read the auctions. Above you can see(click to enlarge) that all they’re doing is taking the information from the auction and breaking it up into specific sections, so it’s easier for the user to take in. This is a complete waste of time for users that read the description. It also says something about the way they’re presenting their auctions. If all they’re doing is dumbing down the auction information, and presenting it to the user for a second time, maybe they should consider dumbing down the actual auction to avoid people missing information. By adding this screen you’re telling the world that a lot people aren’t comprehending or misreading the auction information. Why else would they make the people, who read, suffer? So if we can conclude that a lot of people aren’t fully understanding the auctions, then I think it’s only right to assume that the auction format is too complicated for a lot of users to comprehend.

Something else worth noting, the message screen on the web interface requires a Topic to your question, but only when you’re messaging a seller. If you’re messaging someone for social purposes, there’s no topic required. There’s also no topic required when using the iPhone app. Even if you’re messaging a seller about an auction. So no captcha, and no topic required for the iPhone app. That means speed. Love speed.

How about bidding. Some might think this is the most interesting topic. I don’t believe it is. But there are some fun theories I have that might make you think a little. Let’s begin with the web interface, which isn’t bad. In fact, it’s pretty good. But I never use it because there’s just too many working parts. It’s too heavy. It’s like driving a semi. Pages need to load, there could be login problems, you have to use a mouse, you have to use a keyboard, and I’m probably forgetting at least 3 more things. But basically, the iPhone app is about twice as fast. And when you’re dealing with a sub 10 second snipe, you need speed. Here’s the downside to the app. I don’t trust that count down. I think they pad it by a second or two. I’m not completely sure, but I’m almost positive. I think they do it because if you’re on 3G, they would rather the user get the bid in, and get outbid by a closer snipe, then try and hit it dead on and miss it cause of connection issues. Enabling you to get the bid in does 2 things for them. One, it increases the end price of the auction, which obviously yields them more profit. And two, it keeps both parties happy. The seller is happy because he gets more value, and the bidder is happy cause he just won, or came close to winning, an auction over 3G. You know what, I’m going to say they do pad the time. What I’m not sure of is they pad both the 3G and the WiFi. Tom just said they could do it dynamically. Meaning they could pad the time a half second, and then detect the speed of your connection, then raise the padding as needed. But I don’t know about that. I guess they could, but that seems a little over the top. Wish I worked at eBay.

Here’s something I don’t like about the iPhone app. Refreshing. The original app had the standard apple refresh button(half circle arrow), but they got rid of that and went with the pull down to refresh method. This method was originally invented by Loren Brichter, the creator of Tweetie for iPhone, which if you don’t know, was bought by Twitter and turned into Twitter for iPhone. The method is great for a Twitter app because there’s no room for a refresh button when viewing your timeline.

Stroke of genius. But it’s not meant for what ebay is using it for. In fact it’s extremely dangerous. When you put your finger down on the eBay app, there should always be a spot for it to go. When you use the pull down to refresh method, your finger doesn’t have a place to go. And bad things happen when people have no place to put their fingers. I know why they removed this button. They didn’t want people to press it. Just like they removed the refresh button on the web interface a while back and went with a counter. They wanted users to stop refreshing. It puts a serious strain on the servers when you have people hitting refresh non stop for 3 minutes straight. So I don’t blame them for doing this on the web interface. In fact it’s a better experience. But not with the iPhone app. That button should be there.

Something that I like a lot about the bidding process on the iPhone app is the outbid screen. Normally you have no shot at bidding again on the web interface, if you’re bidding for a snipe. But on the iPhone app, you have a fighting chance because everything is so close together. And also because of my 1 to 2 second padding conspiracy theory.

Well say you weren’t outbid. Hey congratulations! Unfortunately you’re now presented with everyone’s favorite procrastination screen. The dreaded pay button. Ahhh damn, you mean I need to pay for this thing? The web version of this process is so brutal. Way too many screens, and passwords, and choices and ugh god. But paying on the iPhone app is so damn simple, I find myself paying immediately after the auction has ended. I actually believe that a lot of people are paying immediately after they win on the app. eBay can check this if they want. I hope they do cause I feel like I’m right in assuming this. And if I’m right, they should definitely revisit the way eBay works with paypal payments. I mean the app only uses one button. ONE!

Lastly, I’d like to talk about my favorite feature. Saved Searches. This is undiscovered country for a lot of people. Most don’t even have a saved search set up. I bet only 10-15% of people use this feature. Probably less. But it’s easily the greatest peace of mind you’ll ever have as a collector. So if you don’t use it, get into it.

I’m going to begin with the web interface. Here’s my logic. Saved searches are meant to do what? Simple, they’re meant to save time. You’re doing it cause you don’t want to go to the site and search non stop for stuff. So right off the bat, going to the web to manage your saved searches, is highly disruptive. When you’re a person that uses saved searches, you’re a person trying to simplify your life. The web app is the farthest thing from simple. Therefore, the web is not the ideal spot for a saved search interface. I’m not saying that if there wasn’t an iPhone app, I wouldn’t be using the web interface. It would be the only way to utilize the feature, therefore, it would probably be kinda cool. But once they released the iPhone app with saved searches, the web interface became the adjustable wrench of tools. Yeah it gets the job done, but it never fits anything perfect. Ask any true mechanic. The greatest feeling in the world is having the right tool for the job. Using a tool, that’s meant to be used anywhere, is never a great experience.

The next issue with the web interface is the way they deliver the results of your saved searches. Email. Ugh jeez I hate that. I don’t want ebay to send me 5 million emails a day. I don’t want to open them, and read them, and archive them. I just want to know the results. Almost like a 6th sense. God what an annoyance email is. If you don’t realize it’s annoying, then you definitely don’t use the iPhone app. Saved searches on the iPhone app is like a work of art. This is where saved searches were meant to be.

Here’s why I’m drooling about saved searches on the iPhone app. We’re going to go from least to greatest. First there’s the actual act of saving the search. You click that star, and then specify what you want to name the search.

Simple straight forward approach. No needless nonsense that web apps must have like check boxes and pull down menus. They even include an hourly check option. Which some may think is completely unnecessary. Ah but you’re wrong here. Hourly is actually very useful. First I’ll tell you how eBay wants you to use it, then I’ll explain how collectors can use it. Ebay wants you to use it for Buy it Nows. That’s really what it’s meant for. You get extremely specific with your search terms, make sure you select the “Buying Format” as Buy it Now, and then you can use it to pick off low priced items before anyone sees them. And the faster they can get you to buy an item, the faster they can bill for it. So how can collectors use them. Well in sort of the same way actually. When a rare item comes up for auction, a lot of people like to contact the seller and see if they can buy it before the auction ends. This will enable them to lowball the seller and try and steal it before he knows what he has. The best way to do this is as early as possible. Sometimes contacting the seller on the second day isn’t bad either. Sellers get nervous when they don’t have any bids. So a very scared seller might part with the item if they think no one cares about it. Little do they know, buyers will be waiting till the last possible moment to bid, and this is why they’re not seeing any action. But by using this approach you’re taking the risk of another collector getting there first and poaching your steal. Making an offer right away is the better method. And of course, eBay wants you to use neither method. They want the fees associated with a sale. So this hourly option is a double edged sword for them. But, as a collector, I’m really glad they added it.

The app interface is also stripped down to the bare essentials. You can pull down to manually refresh the searches, which unlike the bidding screen, I can appreciate. You can also easily recognize search terms that have received results by the blue dot on the left side. Which is perfect because nothing else on the screen displays in color. That blue dot rings out like a beacon of hope, ahhhhhhh I love when I see that.

The final, and most incredible part of saved searches on the iPhone app is Push Notifications. I can’t really explain how right this is. The idea of saved search results were meant to be delivered in push notification form. They’re undisruptive. They’re kind to the flow of your day. They just pop up on the screen and you swipe them away. There’s no need to open the mail app. There’s nothing to archive. You don’t have to enter your username and password to watch the item. You just get the results, and within a second or two you’ve moved on. And speaking of push notifications. How about ending soon pushes? Can’t get much cleaner than that.

Well there it is. A gigantic run down of how this school bus of a web app, makes the iPhone app, look like a Ferrari. It’s all about speed. Speed is the best part about the iPhone app. And there’s a million ways they speed up the experience. Most you don’t even realize until you think about it. How many times do you put your U/P in when using eBay? There’s none of that on the iPhone app. There’s no “Email to App” loading delays. Essentially, you’re combining mail, eBay, and paypal, all into one app. It changes everything. It changes the way you think about eBay as a service. It becomes part of your day, not something that your day needs to revolve around.